Stuttgart: from Mercedes to Meridian ... and Christmas

I'm with Tim, my cousin Julia and her boyfriend Joe, and we have our heads stuck in other people's armpits as the underground train rattles along somewhere beneath Stuttgart in Germany. How crowded the city has become since its origins in the 10th century as a stud farm ('Stute' means 'mare'). And I mean, I know Mercedes is a popular make of car, but not this popular. For that is where we are headed: the home of Mercedes-Benz. (The brand was born here in the early 1900s.)

We pour out between the doors like water released from a dam and breathe in cool air at last. The hoards stream direction Mercedes-Benz Museum. According to TripAdvisor, it is the top attraction in this, the capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Württemberg region, but really? However, it soon becomes clear, as we hear banging music pouring from the nearby Mercedes-Benz Arena. "Stars and Cars", some annual event for car fans that this year featured Lewis Hamilton and attracted some 35,000 people, as I later read, is in town.

At the Mercedes-Benz Museum, admission is free for the day, to celebrate its 10th anniversary - nice. The museum documents the history of cars over 125 years, from the very beginnings to the present day. The building is striking: it is arranged over nine levels and has cars racing up walls, cars spotlit in huge showrooms and films of cars projected onto blank spaces. Architecturally, it is award-winning. Designed like a helix, it comprises 1,800 unique window panes. So far, so impressive?

Unfortunately, I find the exhibition somewhat disappointing. I feel like I am in a posh garage where the super-rich keep their fancy wheels. There is no interactivity, no cars you can climb into. What I do like is the timeline connecting the different rooms: it tracks events going on in history between the developments of the cars. I do love the first automobile ever, too. It dates from 1879 and looks like a carriage that is missing a horse! Some of the classic cars are really beautiful. I don't get a buzz from seeing them though, unlike Tim, who can't take his eyes off a particularly ritzy red number with doors that open skywards like a butterfly.

We jump back on the U-Bahn - thankfully quieter - and head for central Schlossplatz, which is hemmed in by an 18th-century castle and, when we visit, is gloriously illuminated by Christmas lights. It is a pretty corner of Stuttgart. We sip mulled wine at the little Christmas market before dining in Italian restaurant Il Pomodoro on Silberburgstrasse. It gets busier and busier as the evening goes on, and there is such a buzz in the air that we could be in Italy. The food is delicious: I try salmon roasted with tomatoes and capers.

The following day, I wake up feeling really ill (darned winter), but we have appointments at Le Spa in Le Meridian five-star hotel. They won't let us cancel, despite my sickness - not a great sign. However, when we get there we find a slick but welcoming spa: spotlighting, comfy seating by glass panels that overlook the pool, and bar serving tea and healthy light lunches. A pedicure is perhaps just what I need, but it might have been nicer of the place to let us cancel so I could get home earlier and rest up ... As we drive out of the city, we notice that Stuttgart is set in glorious surroundings - undulating hills with patchwork vineyards that soon open into the widest open countryside I have seen recently. It is mesmerising as the sun sinks, leaving behind a colourful chiffon veil.

Zurich: The Singing Christmas Tree

Rockin' around the Christmas tree? Well, rockin' on it is more like it... It is that time of year again: twinkling Christmas lights tumble down above Zurich's Bahnhofstrasse; the scent of mulled wine, roasting chestnuts and smelly feet (fondue!) lingers on the air; while at Werdmühleplatz's Christmas Market, dulcet tones drift into the night. The carol singers, who are dressed in red and green like Santa's little helpers, are arranged on a stepped, Christmas tree-shaped bandstand.

Since it first sang out to Zurich ten years ago, The Singing Christmas Tree has become iconic. From the end of November until just before Christmas, junior and adult choirs come from across the region to perform all sorts of music - from modern pop to Christmas hits and carols. It is a live concert with a difference, and with or without the mulled wine, the atmosphere is contagious in the most bizarre but lovely way.
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